Review: Lotoo PAW S1 Mobile DAC & headphone amplifier is recommended to Anyone who use their computer, tablet or phone to listen to music
A while ago it would hardly have been thought possible that smartphones or tablets would become HiRes players. Thanks to the appropriate music software apps and mobile external headphone amplifiers or D / A converter solutions, even DSD playback via iPhone is now feasible without much ado. A very promising candidate in this field is the Lotoo PAW S1 (199 euros), a dongle-style DAC / amp combo that can be used not only for DSD but also MQA playback.
The manufacturer Lotoo, which is rather unknown in this country, is an established size in China and a subsidiary of Infomedia Digital Technology Co. Ltd. Don’t you know either? Never mind, the parent company builds technology for radio and television there and has been doing so for over a decade. More than four years ago we had the DAP Lotoo PAW 5000 in the test, in terms of equipment and in terms of usability with upward potential, the little box, on the other hand, went through as a high-flyer in terms of sound.
Dongle or DAP?
Let’s take a look at the current test subject: The advantages of so-called dongles, which are currently sprouting up like asparagus in spring, are quickly listed. Although – as is the case with the PAW S1 – often DAC and headphone amplifiers in personal union, they are compact, light, transportable and suitable for both laptop and smartphone use. Therefore suitable for at home, business trips or on vacation. And if you like to use HiRes content, you usually don’t want snuggly Bluetooth headphones – wired connection is a must. An additional digital audio player (DAP) can then possibly be saved or the luxury part can simply be spared. The direction of developments in the DAP area is currently tending towards the uncompromisingly audiophile, higher-priced direction.
Accordingly, DAPs in the range between 200 and 300 euros are currently rather sparse on the market. Components that are becoming scarcer and more expensive certainly promote this as well. With the result that many well-known manufacturers can hardly find a cheap DAP in their product range, and if so, then probably cross-subsidized. So are dongles some kind of niche in the niche? Always cheaper to manufacture. They are reduced to the essentials: generating high-quality sound. After all, you have your smartphone, tablet and computer – the so-called host – for the storage space, interfaces to other services and sources as well as the entire operating environment.
Aluminum, but no memory
The Lotoo PAW S1, which weighs just 27 grams and measures 6.6 x 2.2 x 1.3 centimeters in the form of an asparagus stump, comes with a housing made from a solid aluminum block. The appearance of the material and workmanship go through price class as above average, there is nothing to complain about here.
As I said, you won’t find any memory card slots here, as well as internal storage capacities. Its OLED display does not have to show a cover, the host device does that too, so a two-line format is sufficient for it, which only shows the volume and, fortunately, the corresponding resolution. The AKM 4377 DAC working inside the Lotoo PAW S1 understands PCM resolutions up to a sample rate of 384 kHz and also handles DSD content (64/128) and, more recently, after a firmware update, MQA-Takes no bow. The circuit architecture as well as the implementation of the PLL clock, for which an AKM AK8142 clock generator is available, was taken over from Lotoo’s more expensive DAPs.
There are only three neatly recessed buttons on the top of the Lotoo PAW S1. The one in front activates the menu navigation, while the two others, who are otherwise responsible for setting the volume, carry out the corresponding regulating actions. Simple, but efficient at the same time. The digital signal processor (DSP) connected upstream of the DAC offers all kinds of pre-programmed EQ settings for corresponding music genres. ATE sound fields optimized for specific scenarios – such as “Game” when playing games on a smartphone or “Movie” for enjoying a film on a laptop – are also on offer. Can be switched off at any time, a nice-to-have feature.
Everything has an end, the Lotoo PAW S1 has two …
There is a USB-C socket at one of the two ends of the Lotoo PAW S1. Cables for USB-A (laptop & Co) and USB-C are included in the scope of delivery, the Lightning connector for iOS devices is optionally available for 39 euros. At the other end, in addition to a classic, unbalanced 3.5-millimeter jack socket, a fully symmetrical and currently very popular 4.4-millimeter Pentaconn output is looking for a connection.
A solution of DAC and amplifier in just one chip seemed too mundane to the Lotoo engineers and the Pentaconn branch logically requires symmetrical amplifier trains, which Lotoo serves with a Texas Instruments OPA1622 tandem. With 120 mW output power per channel, the symmetrical amplification is almost twice as strong as the asymmetrical (3.5 millimeter jack, 2 x 70 mW). A high / low gain switch allows fine adjustment to the operation of over-ears or very sensitive in-ears. Mind you, the performance specifications apply at 32 ohm load impedance, so if you need larger level reserves for, let’s say: 600 ohm headphones, you should look around for more powerful gaming partners. But from nerd to nerd and one way or another for headphone owners with a wide selection, it’s quite remarkable,
Few open wishes
Be that as it may: In terms of level, the Lotoo PAW S1 leaves little to be desired for me personally, even though it does not have the reserves of powerful DAPs. Which is completely equalized with efficient headphones such as the Meze 99 Neo , the Sony MDR-1A or basically most IEMs. In this context, briefly on the load on the energy-giving smartphone battery: My iPhone 11 seemed to deliver its power 1/3 faster, mind you, also depending on the resolution in which and whether it was streamed or listened to from the memory. Another advantage for me is that the PAW S1 is always ready for use if another source device is. iPhone empty? Let’s continue with the iPad …
Basic disadvantages compared to a DAP? Well, not everyone can cope with the dongle wagging around on the go. On the iPhone, you simply help yourself out with a hair tie from the better half, but on the iPad? The fact that the supplied cable could turn out to be an Achilles heel in the direction of a loose connection cannot be denied. The accessory pack is of high quality, but how will it behave in one or two years of continuous use / long-term use? Due to the rough everyday testing, the braided sheath of the cable is already peeling off from one end. This does not limit the function, but it is also not optimal and calls to aesthetes for immediate replacement. But these are of course not serious problems, that’s true.
Hhearing test with comparisons
Just to drop the door straight into the house: The Lotoo can keep a DAP like a HiBy R3 at a distance, but not the HiBy R3 Pro, in my opinion there is more of a stalemate here. The bottom line is that the Lotoo PAW S1 is gentler and warmer than the HiBy R3 Pro, which has been trained to be more accurate in detail. The Lotoo PAW S1 is astonishingly superior – and we’re talking about a 200 euro dongle here – the character tonality of different headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 660S (intensely colored , three-dimensional and extremely natural), Philips Fidelio X3 (powerful, darker nuances), Sendy Audio Aiva (brighter, jumping and turning on) and the Hifiman HE400i 2020 (balanced, calm) clearly understandable and differentiated. I think they all benefit from the symmetrical connection, which gives the music more space to unfold and also more intensity.
But we don’t want to know what the individual headphones sound like, but how the Lotoo PAW S1 on the iPhone or MacBook Air compares to the less expensive HiBy R3 Pro (249 euros), the more expensive HiBy R6 Pro (699 euros) or one more significantly more expensive Astell & Kern KANN Cube (1,699 euros). In return, Tidal contributes the piece “Sunson” by Nils Frahm, which is always in the same version , in which the entire tonal spectrum is used lavishly.
Well, the Lotoo PAW S1 counters the HiBy R3 Pro, which is surprisingly transparent in the upper registers, with a more gentle high-tone texture that is typical of AKM-DAC. It does not glitter and sparkle with the same intensity, but the lotoo does not miss any detail, no nuance is blurred. He by no means wants to put on the shoe of a soft focus.
In the mid-band below, the PAW S1 offers a noticeable, but still well-dosed warmth and fullness, which make the synthesizer tones appear more tangible and substantial. At first glance, the R3 Pro appears more sober, less colorful and at the same time clearer / more audible, but ultimately it depends on your own taste and the headphones used. In the bass, both are quite neutral, unexcited, without the influence of doping, with a tendency towards accurate definition rather than powerful, powerful thump. Candidates like the HiBy R6 Pro and the Astell & Kern KANN Cube can boom much more impressively: with all the necessary neutrality, more powerful, energetic and tighter. That the big DAPs in the higher altitudes also display more lucid finesse and ethereal airiness, well, with a view to the price, that’s not surprising. Would be even nicer.
In terms of fine and coarse dynamics, the Lotoo PAW S1 shows itself to be fast with pieces by the progressive rocker group The Mars Volta . These tended to surprise the unsuspecting listener with eruptive load changes from one end of the scale to the opposite or feverish saxophone interludes. The PAW S1 remains delicate and accurate, even if it changes into variations in sound events of different levels. In terms of fine dynamics, these facets are presented a bit more clearly via in-ears than, for example, via the harder-to-drive DT 880 PRO. The Lotoo PAW S1 immediately rewards a careful selection of the headphones to play with according to your own preferences.
Last but not least, the chapter “Stage Representation” is interesting, here the Lotoo PAW S1 takes the action one step forward, has an involving effect and makes tonal events “breathing” and three-dimensional, instead of narrow and flat. The HiBy R3 Pro acts differently here, which is apparently more concerned with distance than involvement. The fact that the two higher-end DAPs KANN Cube and R6 Pro know how to present the instrumentation more precisely – for free. But with a view to the more pronounced staggering in depth as well as the increased overall expansion of the stage, the additional price that is called becomes audible.
A little nerd tip to finish off, the Lotoo PAW S1 complements perfectly with the easy-to-drive, detailed over-ear Sony MDR-1A or symmetrically controlled with the Sendy Audio Aiva.
Conclusion: Lotoo PAW S1
Anyone who would like to spontaneously or regularly use their computer, tablet or phone to listen to music without using a designated DAP will find an astonishingly powerful and uncomplicated sound with the Lotoo PAW S1 – a display is anything but anything in this class of course – all-round tool. Last but not least, compatibility with PC, Mac, Android and iOS contributes to the versatility of the PAW S1.
The symmetrical 4.4-millimeter output, with its powerful and confident appearance for such a tiny amp, is particularly fun, even with more demanding over-ears. Other players sometimes offer more resolution or more oomph in the bass, but the PAW S1 scores with long-term, yet detailed highs, colorful mids and an involving, three-dimensional stage. In the past, significantly more money had to be pushed over the dealer counter for such audiophile qualities.
- Product: Lotoo PAW S1
- Concept: mobile DAC and headphone amplifier
- Price: 199 euros
- Dimensions & weight: 6.6 x 2.2 x 1.3 centimeters; 27 grams
- Inputs: USB-C
- Headphone outputs: 3.5 mm stereo jack, 4.4 mm Pentaconn
- Supported formats: PCM up to 32 bit / 384 kHz, DSD (64/128)
- Other: Cable for USB-A (laptop & Co), USB-C included, Lightning cable for iOS devices optional for 39 euros
- Warranty: 24 months